If possession is nine points of the law, it is also, according to A.S. Byatt, one of the fine points of love. Possession, the 1990 novel by which the author acquired Britain's Booker Prize, is the aptly titled story of academic turf wars and struggles over ownership of precious manuscripts. Dead poets take control of living scholars, and amorous men and women stake claims on each other. "I felt possessed," says Roland Michell, a researcher who, obsessed with finding the truth about Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, filches things from libraries.
Possession is a large literary novel about writers and scholars that is intricately fashioned in varying modes. One of Byatt's most impressive accomplishments is her creation of two very different 19th-century poets, Ash and Christabel LaMotte. But she not only imagines them; she contrives extensive and convincing specimens of their poetry. It is as if a playwright were to concoct a drama about two composers, one a bit like Mahler, the other like Brahms, and proceed to offer symphonies created in distinct styles.
If you take the poetry out of Possession, what remains is a giddy symmetry of couplings: Ash (Northam) and LaMotte (Ehle) in the 19th-century, and Michell and Maud Bailey (a descendant and scholar of LaMotte) in the present. Besides having to streamline its complicated plot, a film version of the book could not possibly duplicate the textures of its poems, letters, and journals. Whatever possessed director Neil LaBute to bring Byatt's renowned novel to the screen, he must have known that much would be left on the page.
The film begins with Michell's discovery of a letter ensconced within the leaves of an ancient book. The letter was written by Ash, whom Michell (a research assistant based at the British Museum) was hired to study. Though no connection has been known to exist between Ash and LaMotte, a reclusive lesbian, the letter seems addressed to her. A menial member of the Ash project, Michell decides to follow up on his own. However, instead of consulting the published research on LaMotte, he immediately travels to Lincoln University, to quiz Bailey about her specialty and her ancestor. It is as if, instead of bothering to read any of his books on Islam, someone journeyed to Princeton to ask Professor Bernard Lewis what a Shiite is. Professional scholars do not operate that way, though professional filmmakers know audiences will not watch people merely reading. But Bailey, an icy beauty, is worth watching, especially as portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, known for making Shakespeare fall in love.
Though skittish about passion, Michell and Bailey team up to uncover a clandestine affair between Ash and LaMotte. On the trail of their two poets, Michell and Bailey end up in the same bed in a Yorkshire inn where the others spent a month of furtive bliss. "It's horrible when you think about it — men and women together," says Bailey. "It's all doomed." Michell and Bailey are of course doomed to converge, though each is more apprehensive than their supposedly prim Victorian predecessors. Perhaps they saw LaBute's first film, In the Company of Men, an anatomy of misogynistic cruelty.
Scrutinizing rare books in a London archive, Michell holds pen in hand — a practice that would have gotten his fingers chopped off by curators on hand to ensure that nothing more hazardous than a pencil is present. Possession is an odd instance of commercial cinema in which literary scholarship is portrayed as a thrilling adventure, or at worst a Hardy Boys caper. It is enough to make a viewer swear off movies and spend the day poring over holographs in Austin's Harry Ransom Center. (UT's scholarly treasure trove comes in for indirect attack in the cartoon figure of Professor Cropper, a cocky interloper from New Mexico who, like agents of the HRC, uses a wad of cash to loot England of literary heirlooms.)
Paltrow fits in as a Brit, but, though Byatt's Michell is English working-class, American Aaron Eckhart plays him as an American, reinforcing the novel's digs at the arrogance and incompetence of scholars from the United States who presume possession of Albion's heritage. Michell is inept in French, though it is likely that, even if American, a specialist in 19th-century poetry would not be monolingual.
"I am my own riddle," declares Christabel in the Coleridge poem that gave LaMotte her name. By leaving his script with no loose ends, LaBute deprives Possession not only of its poetry but also its mystery.
"Translated to film, novel loses poetry"
Dir. Neil LaBute; writ. David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, LaBute, based on a novel by A.S. Byatt; feat. Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhard, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey (PG-13)